Memorandum submitted by the Academy for
the Social Sciences
On behalf of the Academy of Learned Societies
for the Social Sciences, I wish to provide a written response
to your inquiry into short-term research contracts in science
Below, I have addressed each of the questions
being sought by the Commons Science and Technology Committee.
However, before I supply our response I have detailed briefly
our contribution to science and technology.
The Academy was established in 2000 and comprises
over 40 Societies, Associations and research organisations who
represent the social sciences in both academic and applied setting
throughout the United Kingdom. Outstanding individual scholars
and practitioners in social science are also members through their
election as Academicians. Many of our Social Scientists work with
Scientists and Engineers on a range of projects. Further details
of the Academy are available on our website (www.the-academy.org.uk).
Our membership represents a significant sector
of employment and many of the institutes and organisations that
contribute to the Academy's employ researchers on short-term contracts.
In this context, we consulted our membership
and have provided a summary of their views and how such issues
impact on higher education in particular.
Does the Preponderance of Short-Term Research
Contracts Really Matter?
Our main concerns relating to this question
are the opportunities for researchers to develop a positive career
in their specialism and the lack of security arising from contracts,
especially for more senior positions. Certainly if funding of
short-term research is seen within a wider context of higher education,
since the 1980s the competition for short-term contracts has intensified
because of the Research Assessment Exercises (RAE). Although some
funding is long term, such as core funding to research centres
by such bodies as the Economic and Social Research Council, there
is still a large amount of short term funded research within the
Short-term contracts are bad for researchers
because they make a career in University research an unattractive
option. It is equally bad for the research sector and research
funders in that many of the people who have the potential to be
excellent researchers are not going into the higher education
sector in the first place. Those that do enter this sector are
likely to end up in teaching, where there are more dependable
jobs (especially for those who have family responsibilities and
who need a regular and reliable income). This means that funders
are potentially unlikely to get the best researchers working on
their projects. In addition, the attention of staff during the
last few months of a contract is often on getting another contract
or job, rather than satisfactorily completing their current project.
There is also a detrimental effect on the general
development of knowledge in society and lifelong learning. Because
people on short-term contracts are likely to move on in their
careers, there is the concern that researchers take on a wide
range of work rather than developing expertise.
What are the Implications for Researchers and
Several of the points I have made in the earlier
section will relate to this question too. The term "career"
implies some long-term progression or linear promotion within
an occupation or through a series of occupations involving increasing
levels of responsibility at each stage. There has been a growth
in the number of fixed term lectureships in higher education.
According to Bryson,
80 per cent of new academic posts are fixed term, and 40 per cent
of academic labour is employed fixed term or on a temporary basis.
This rises to 52 per cent if hourly paid staff is included in
this analysis. Certainly the RAE has created a buoyant employment
market, but this will not continue without significant increases
in the funding of our major research institutions.
The implications of this increase in contracts
on research careers looks bleak with contract researchers not
being well paid, having no career structure and no security of
employment. Often people find it hard to progress out of the RA1A
scale and many of those who stay in research and who do several
post-doctorate contracts become stuck at the same point. Although
Universities have been engaged in research for a long time, there
appears to be no attempt to support research units or teams and
create permanent posts for researchers. In such situations researchers
leave for more secure positions outside higher education (such
as industry or commerce) or take on heavy teaching loads. Such
situations lead researchers to the feeling that conducting research
is not recognised as being a valued part of their work.
Is there evidence that the present situation causes
good researchers to leave?
Although we have not collected any factual evidence
of this matter, there is a lack of research capacity particularly
for mature, experienced researchers who are capable of managing
a research team or managing complex projects.
In some subjects (such as law and economics
in the social sciences), there are documented skill shortages.
This may well be the situation too in the sectors of science and
technology. It is questionable whether this is the effect of remuneration
in the private sector vis a vis the public sector or other
factors such as the burden of student debt, job insecurity or
What Would be the Right Balance Between Contract
and Permanent Research Staff in Universities and Research Institutions?
At present, universities are supposed to be
in a regime of full funding of research by research grants but
this is not actually the case and there is insufficient HEFCE
funding to employ large numbers of permanent research staff. Therefore,
research staff tend to be employed on short-term contracts, because
universities are reluctant to offer contracts beyond the funding
available, and there are relatively few permanent posts dedicated
wholly to research.
If the aim of the question is to consider options
for improving the quality of research, one solution would be to
change the funding system to allow universities to employ more
permanent research staff, for example as Experimental Officers
etc. However, a side-effect of this would be that, after a couple
of years, far fewer young people would be taking post-doctorate
positions and it is not clear where the new lecturers would come
It may be worthwhile comparing the conditions
of employment of research staff in other countries such as France.
One important funding source in France is from the state through
the CNRS, which does award longer-term contracts to research staff.
Does such funding produce better research outputs and a working
environment more conducive to research quality and quantity? France
has begun to evaluate research; a simpler version of the UK RAE
has recently taken place, so it could be interesting to compare
Has the Concordate and the Research Careers Initiative
Made any Difference?
The Concordate is seen to be very weak and does
not make the employer responsible for making proper use of human
resources. Nevertheless it is important to have a policy such
as the Concordate, but trade unions such as the AUT, NATFE and
the Contract Research and Teaching Staff Forum (SRTSF) also play
an important role. For many contract staff the key concern is
securing their next contract.
How should Policy Move Forward?
It is important that there is a clear direction
from the Government as to the role of Universities. If it is the
aim of government to increase the number of permanent researchers
then there needs to be an effective method of paying for them.
A return to a more balanced dual funding regime
would be necessary to increase the number of permanent research
staff as well as a well-defined career structure. In a sense,
this already exists. Universities have academic scales, experimental
officer grades, research grades etc that rise all the way to professorial
level. However, the problems are (a) that people on temporary
contracts either are not here long enough to make progress or
(b) are employed on a particular post that does not allow them
to expand their experience. Point (a) is intimately related to
the nature of the funding. The staff are temporary because the
funding is temporary and the funding is temporary because it is
related almost wholly to "projects" with insufficient
HEFCE support. Point (b) is more complex. Research staff are often
appointed to do a specific job. Although this job may need someone
with a PhD, it may not have any prospects for career development.
Such jobs probably are best left to researchers on temporary contracts.
There may be merit in comparing policy and practice
in other advanced capitalist economies with a stronger research
culture to that currently prevailing in the UK. Second, following
the recent announcement by Robert Gordon University
that it is to give all contract researchers job securitythe
first British university to do sothe scheme should be studied
for possible utilisation by other British universities.
Overall, there should be a commitment that all
staff within Universities be employed on the same terms and conditions
unless there are exceptional circumstances.
2 July 2002
1 Bryson C-"The Rising Tide of Casualisation"
AUTLook, 217,5-7 Back
Wojtas O, Contract culture ended at RGU, Times Higher Education
Supplement, May 31st 2002, 4. Back